For Lacan, language is intersubjective (speech always implies a speaker and someone spoken to) and forms & transforms us as subjects intrasubjectively/psychologically, intersubjectively/socially and extrasubjectively/environmentally (speech is how we relate to ourselves, each other and the world, i.e., acts are speech acts).
What I’m trying to articulate is that what dominates [society] is the practice of language. (Lacan 2007: 239)
Hence, he uses the term discourse (after ’68) for the four possible modes of intersubjective relations (the theory of discourses is his response to the Marxism of the ’68ers). Discourse determines the thought, affect, enjoyment, meaning and identity of the subject.
[I]t is on discourse that every determination of the subject depends. (178)
Thus, changes in discourse can produce changes in intra-, inter- and extrasubjective “reality.”
The terms and positions
- $ the barred subject [sujet], hence also the symptom (≠ the ego = the Id: das Es) → alienation
- S1 the master-signifier [signifiant-maitre], itself empty but an “anchoring point” (point de capiton, lit. “upholstery button”) around which other signifiers can stabilize, halting the endless play of signifiers by organizing affect and knowledge, thus deferring desire (e.g., the commodity in capitalism), a.k.a. Truth, norms → values
- S2 the system of know-how and knowledge (savoir), a.k.a. the “battery of signifiers,” structured syntagmatically (by metonymy/displacement) and paradigmatically (by metaphor/substitution) → belief
- a the object of desire [objet petit a] as the surplus/excess (plus-de-jouir/Mehrlust, cf. Marx’s Mehrwert: surplus value) → enjoyment (jouissance)
The terms always appear in this order on the square or “quadripode”: subject → master-signifier → knowledge → object. They shift relative to four positions: the agent (what is dominant), truth (its condition of possibility), the other (what is called into action by the agent) and the product (what is produced as a result):
(The left-hand positions represent the subject speaking; the right-hand positions, what is to be assumed by the subject spoken to. The top positions are manifest; the bottom positions, latent.)
This grid borrows from the medieval logic of statements, viz., term → opposite → negation → negation of the negation (sameness → alterity → difference → identity):
It also resembles Greimas’s semiotic square:
The structure of the discourses
The combination of terms and positions generates the four algorithms of the “universe of mastery,” all derived from the discourse of the master (note that the discourse of the university, for example, does not just apply to the university as a social institution):
- the discourse of the master (governing/policing): the master-signifier is master and represents the subject for all other signifiers; knowledge is put to work, but representing knowledge as a whole (i.e., an object) is impossible (i.e., the object a remains);
- the discourse of the university (teaching/encoding): knowledge is master (nowadays, science and technology) and represents the master-signifier; the object is put to work, i.e., domesticated (as “objectivity”), representing the subject as powerless;
- the discourse of the hysteric (desiring/questioning or resisting): the subject is master and represents the object; the master-signifier is put to work, representing knowledge as powerless; and
- the discourse of the analyst (healing/revolutionizing): the object (and thus the analyst as object of the analysand’s desire) represents knowledge (unlike medicine, psychoanalysis does not use knowledge to cure a symptom); the subject is put to work, but representing a whole subject is impossible.
To take literary reading as an example,
- the masterful reader tries to read everything (S2) the same way;
- the hysterical reader reads for the key (S1) to the text;
- the universalist reader reads “objectively” (a); and
- the analytical reader reads symptomatically ($).
There are different versions of each discourse. Taking mastery, there is
- the philosopher’s mastery, which erases the subject in favour of knowledge and represses truth;
- the capitalist’s, which demands efficiency without knowing why; and
- the physician’s, which uses knowledge to cure a symptom.
There are political relationships between discourses: the university discourse is often slave to the master, insofar as the university serves the master’s discourse of the day: once the university served the Church, then the Nation, now the Market.
Lacan also hinted that there might be a fifth discourse — an alternate universe, even — that of the capitalist, which is not derived from the universe of mastery (cf. Bryant on the Universe of Capitalism). (Any number of combinations other than those of the universe of mastery are possible if we allow the order of the terms in the quadripode to change.)
The position of the agent is occupied by the subject as consumer, who does not address the Other, but the truth, i.e., the Market as master signifier. Through the Market, the subject can ask knowledge, i.e. science and technology, to produce objects to be consumed, i.e. commodities, that can never completely fulfil the subject’s desire.
- Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Seminar 17: L’Envers de la Psychoanalyse (1969-70), trans. Russell Grigg (1991; New York: W.W. Norton, 2007).
- Mark Bracher, “On the Psychological and Social Functions of Language: Lacan’s Theory of the Four Discourses,” Lacanian Theory of Discourse: Subject, Structure and Society, ed. Bracher (New York: NYUP, 1994) 107-28.